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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: author

Me a workaholic? Give me a break!

Stephen H. Provost

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in "The Princess Bride"

My name is Stephen, and I am not, repeat not, a workaholic.

It might look like I am at times, but these days, it’s easy to mistake someone who’s conscientious, driven and passionate about what he does for a workaholic.

What’s wrong with that, you ask?

If people think you’re doing something because you’re addicted to work, they’re likely to tell you to “take a load off,” “relax” or, my favorite, “Don’t take life too seriously.”

I have an offbeat (some might say warped) sense of humor, but I like a good laugh as much as the next person. If there’s anything I might be addicted to (other than caffeine), it’s puns. But addicted to work? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s like accusing me of being addicted to exhaustion and stress, two of my least favorite things.

Another problem with being mistaken for a workaholic is that people overlook the real reasons you work as hard as you do. Here are a few:

  • You want to make sure a task is done well.
  • You want to meet a deadline.
  • You don’t want to make others do the work that’s your responsibility.
  • You want to succeed. This point is particularly true of the self-employed and small-business owners, who frequently get classified as workaholics. But their motivations aren’t a love of work for its own sake. It requires a tremendous amount of work and dedication to pursue success apart from the established corporate structure, simply because there’s no established support framework. You have to build one from scratch, which requires a lot of work on top of the typical workweek. What most people in this category want is independence. The work is merely a means to that end.
  • You want to feed yourself, contribute to your family’s success and maybe, just maybe, have a little bit left over for (gasp) playtime! (Workaholics don’t have playtime, so if you’re looking for a way to distinguish the conscientious, driven worker from the workaholic, this is a great bullet point to remember.)

All of the above apply to me. As a journalist, I want to make sure my newspaper contains high-quality content and is delivered on time, and I know it’s up to me and my reporter to make that happen.

As an author, I’m trying to establish a support framework (fellow authors and others in the industry; and, most importantly readers) in addition to doing the actual work of writing.

In order to give all this a chance to work, I have to establish clear boundaries. My work as a journalist comes first, because that’s my primary source of income. So, I make sure those goals are met first.

Sometimes, that means working outside the "normal" workday to cover a meeting or respond to breaking news. But that doesn’t mean I go out looking for extra work just for its own sake. I have books to write and market, too. So, on the weekends, I don’t do journalism unless 1) there’s a crisis involving breaking news, 2) my boss asks me to or 3) I need to in order to ensure the aforementioned quality and timeliness standards are met.

I became an author (and a journalist, for that matter) because I love to write. Most of the time, writing isn’t work to me; it’s pleasure. The stuff that goes along with it – the marketing, promotion and the networking – is necessary work. If I were a workaholic, I’d love that stuff. I don’t. Not even close.

Yes, it’s fun to meet other authors and talk to readers, but nine-hour drives to conventions aren’t kind to a 53-year-old body, so they’re not my idea of a good time.

(An aside: I don’t want people contacting me on social media or personal email about their pet peeves regarding the newspaper or telling me that one of my books sucks. Just put yourself in my position. Would you? I don’t think even workaholics enjoy that sort of thing.)

It’s easy to dismiss hardworking, conscientious people who are passionate about what they do as “workaholics,” as though there’s something wrong with them. But is there really? Aren’t hard work, conscientiousness and passion positive traits? They sure were when I was growing up, and I think they still are today.

So, the next time you see someone working hard, don’t assume the person's a masochist or workaholic. Far more likely, it's someone with a goal, a vision, a purpose. And chances are good that, if it's achieved, it will help make the world a little better place.

5 Reasons Not to Write Fiction in the Present Tense

Stephen H. Provost

I picked up a friend’s novel the other day, opened it and started reading. It’s well written, and the characters are interesting. They’re the sort of people I can relate to, which made me want to read further.

But that’s not the first thing I noticed about the book. The first thing I noticed was the fact that it was written in present tense.

Apparently, this is a thing – especially for young adult novels. I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it’s trendy in this genre. Presumably, the idea is to convey a sense of immediacy: This is happening now, and you’re along for the ride, not merely hearing someone tell you about it after the fact.

That’s the upside, but there are enough downsides to more than offset it, in my book – well, not in my book: I’ve never written one in present tense. And here are five reasons I wouldn’t:

  1. It’s not conversational. Strike up a discussion with someone. Anyone. I’ll bet you he or she doesn’t talk in present tense. When people tell stories, they’re usually telling you about something that happened to them in the past; making it sound as though it’s happening in the present can be confusing and downright irritating. It’s kind of like Kanye West referring to himself in third-person. Most people don’t talk like that. It sounds weird at best, pretentious at worst.
  2. You’re not a tour guide. Or a golf announcer. There aren’t many people who speak in the present tense when describing something. Sometimes, it can work, but that “sometimes” is rarely in print. You’re reading a novel, not taking a tour of Hearst Castle or watching The Master’s. Even that can be galling. How often do we have to listen to an announcer state the obvious: “He lines it up and approaches the ball …”? I can see that for myself, Einstein. Be quiet and let the action speak for itself. Which brings me to No. 3.
  3. It makes you more aware of the narrator. You’ve no doubt heard (probably since middle school) that good writers “show and don’t tell.” The present tense does the opposite by emphasizing style over substance. Writers who use it are relying on a technique to bolster the story, rather than getting out of the way and letting the story speak for itself. It’s crutch. The more you’re aware of the narrator, the less you’re able to connect with the story. Unless deftly done, the present tense is a distraction that keeps the reader from becoming immersed in the tale. Think about how often you see actors turn to address the audience directly from the stage. George Burns used to do it on the old Burns and Allen TV show, but there’s a reason it’s the exception, not the rule: It reminds the audience (or the reader) that this is “just” a story. If the story’s good, the reader should forget it’s a story. It should become an alternate reality. An intrusive narrator can keep that from happening.
  4. It’s tiring. While it may seem like fun at first to feel like you’re in the middle of the action, this can get exhausting. Part of the magic of reading is being able to go at your own pace, and – at least for me – being caught up in a present-tense narrative can be exhausting, especially if it’s heavy on the action. I can wind up wanting a break after a few pages, which is exactly the effect I don’t want to have as a writer: I want my readers to become so engrossed in the story they don’t want to put it down.
  5. It’s difficult to maintain. Because it’s natural to tell stories in the past tense, you have to pay close attention as a present-tense author to keep from reverting back into what’s more comfortable. You have to continually be on your guard to make sure you’re still writing in the present tense, and you have to have a damn good editor to catch the lapses you miss. Why spend all that energy on maintaining the present tense when you could be devoting it to telling the story? The best answer I can come up with is that you shouldn’t.

I’m not saying writers banish use the present tense to stylistic purgatory, any more than we should avoid first-person narratives altogether. I just think we should be selective about using such devices to be sure they don’t detract from the story. (I wrote my first novel, Identity Break, in the first-person format, and I'm pleased with the way it turned out; but if I had it to do over again, I’d probably opt for the third-person POV, because I could have told the same story more seamlessly.)

I’ll likely keep reading my friend’s present-tense book, because it has a lot going for it. The author is a strong enough writer to pull it off. But to me, that’s like being a golfer who’s good enough to win despite a two-stroke penalty, or a boxer can deck his opponent with one hand tied behind his back. I’d rather forgo the penalty and have both my hands free. 

Writing: The Great Escape

Stephen H. Provost

Over the past five years, I’ve written nearly a dozen freestanding books of various lengths, a couple of short stories, dozens of newspaper columns and more blog entries than I can count.

Why do I do it? Why pursue an occupation that many find daunting to consider and grueling to pursue?

Because I can? No, because I must.

I don’t have any choice. “Writer’s block” to me is nothing more than an excuse not to get started (most often) or not to continue (occasionally). It’s a phantom menace, the voice of the wolf inside my head that I don’t feed very often because the other wolf is a lot hungrier.

George Orwell posited that, putting aside the need to earn a living, there are four great motives for writing prose:

Sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”

Aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.”

Historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Political purpose: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Guilty on all counts. Orwell’s “1984” left a lasting impression on me as a young adult, both for its creativity in fashioning an alternate universe and for its insights into the human condition.

I share each of the four motives he mentioned, but all of them together aren’t what keeps me writing. One thing does: Like Orwell, I’m able to create an alternate universe. And, to be blunt, I like it better there.

New worlds, old worlds

Novelists create new worlds; writers of non-fiction revisit old ones. I’ve had the privilege of doing both. As an author of paranormal fantasy/science fiction, I get to imagine what life would be like if the rules were different, if the world were more vibrant, if the challenges less mundane and the means of answering them more noble. Who wants to worry about paying bills, going to the doctor or attending some pointless meeting when you can imagine yourself slaying a dragon – or, far better yet, befriending one?

As an author of historical nonfiction, I get to travel back in time and visit worlds that have passed into memory. I wrote a book about my hometown as it was during my childhood and another about the history of a long-traveled highway. Sorry, H.G. Wells, but I don’t need your time machine. I can research and write my way back into a world that might otherwise have passed to oblivion. Talk about power. Talk about responsibility.

It’s not that I don’t like this world. I have a wonderful wife, two stepsons who are maturing into proverbial “fine young men,” a father who loves me and two cats who provide unconditional affection (they do demand a bowl of kibble and a rub behind the ears, but that’s beside the point). I live in a beautiful town where I don’t have to choose between the beach and the forest and the foothills, because it’s got all three. What’s not to like?

In response, I refer you back to the earlier reference to bills, health concerns, meetings … you get the picture.

I write because, in doing so, I can escape such mundane concerns. I write because I have the audacity to believe that I can create a world more exciting, more honorable, less bitter and less tragic than the one in which I live. A world where whimsy and nostalgia vanquish bigotry and heartache and disease – maybe not every time (a good story has to have conflict, after all), but enough to keep hope alive that I’m headed for a happy ending.

Writer's Paradox

There have been times in this life when I’ve lacked that hope, and it was then that I started writing, first in the angst of teenage isolation, then in the aftermath of job loss and divorce. I suppose that means there’s something to the old cliché about affliction stoking the fires of creativity, which makes this musing something of a paradox: Torment set my pen in motion, a chariot upon which I can escape that self-same torment.

But that paradox no longer matters. I’ve fallen in love with writing, and now that life is good again, I’m not about to quit. This is one of those “till death do us part” things, with one singularly fascinating caveat: My writing will survive me, and will carry a portion of me into the afterlife of the printed page.

That’s something Orwell touched upon in his nod to egoism: Writing offers a taste of immortality achieved through memory preserved – of "memortality," if you will. (I like how that sounds.) And though it’s a taste and nothing more, it’s enough to whet the appetite for what lies beyond. In the next line, on the next page, in the next chapter.

To visit worlds where I’d like to live – and worlds that will outlive me.

This is why I write.

This is why I’ll never stop.

5 Ways Artists Can Defend Themselves Against Trolls

Stephen H. Provost

Don’t be a DiC. Dismissive critic, that is. DiCs are closely related to trolls and bullies, along with other, even less savory characters.

They’re all over the place these days, multiplying like Roger and Jessica Rabbit on a pleasure cruise through cyberspace.

The DiCs are newly empowered by 140-character limits and more platforms KISS and Lady Gaga have in their combined shoe collections. But they’ve always been with us, eager to sacrifice our feelings on the altar of their egos. A few well-chosen words, and our self-esteem can go up in flames.

Why do they do it?

Mostly because they want to look like authorities on something. Anything. And it’s a lot easier to spend 30 seconds banging out those 140 characters than it is to spend years earning a degree or doing any actual research.

Social media has leveled the playing field in many respects, with one result being that any Tom, DiC or Harry can claim expertise and proceed to tell others why their inferior. Because they can, they do. And all too often, we let them trap us inside a house of cards. They mark what they consider to be their territory with sarcastic tweets, hit-and-run Facebook comments, and scathing reviews on Yelp or Amazon.

Authors, musicians and other artists  can be particularly susceptible to DiCs, because we put our heart and soul into what we create.

How to combat them? Here are five suggestions.

Understand their motives

Yes, it’s personal, but it’s not about you. It’s all about them. These insecure egotists have a single goal: Building up their own sense of worth via a false comparison with someone else. They try to remake their victims in the image of their own straw men (and women), so they can proceed to tear them – you – down.

Don’t let them, because you really are better than they are – and they know it. If they trick you into believing the opposite, they’ve won.

Recognize their methods

DiCs want to insulate themselves from any fallout because, when it comes right down to it, they’re more scared of you than you are of them. That’s why they hide behind computer screens, podiums and their own dismissive tone when confronting others.

They use sarcasm in place of substance. They favor personal attacks and fallacies over rational discussion. And they hate to lose, so they’re going to pretend they’ve won even if your logic is unimpeachable.

My advice: Don’t waste it on them.

Think of them as venomous snakes defending their territory: They lie in the weeds, just waiting to inject their poison into you because they’re scared you’re more powerful than they are. And they’re right: You are. They want to bring you down before you can use that power against them, even though you probably wouldn’t have even noticed them otherwise … and that’s the one thing they find scarier than being exposed as powerless: not even being noticed in the first place.

Don’t engage

Paradoxically, even as they seek to ensure your own safety, they actually want you to respond. Why? Because they need to be noticed. If you respond, it satisfies their egos by demonstrating that they can control someone else. You’ve taken the bait, and now you are (in their minds, at least) under their power.

Just the other day, someone tossed a dismissive piece of criticism in my direction from the safety of a public podium. I had no opportunity to respond, because that podium provided the critic with the safety he felt he needed.

But that wasn’t the end of it. After the meeting was over, he approached me to “reassure” me that his remarks weren’t meant personally – and, conveniently, to reaffirm his position. He attempted to assert a measure of authority by stating he had some background in my field. I responded briefly with my reasoning, then he told me something to the effect that he “wanted to let me know” his opinion.

I initially took this as a cue to restate and elaborate on my own point of view, but before I could do so, I stopped myself. That was, I believe, exactly what he wanted me to do. Instead, I looked him in the eye, nodded once, and politely said, “OK.” He didn’t have much choice at that point but to walk away, because I’d asserted my control by ending the conversation on my terms.

Listen just long enough

One problem with DiCs is they realize critiques can be helpful. If we simply tuned out all criticism, we might miss the constructive kind. You know: “Your fly is open” or “You have something between your teeth” or “You might not want to say that in polite company.” It’s in our own best interest to take notice of constructive criticism, and the DiCs use this fact to get their foot in the door by masquerading as people who “just want to help.”

Here’s the best way to respond: Listen just long enough to determine whether their criticism is constructive or dismissive, then, if it’s the latter, disengage. Shake the dust off your feet and walk away. The bad news is that some DiCs are so practiced at drawing people in that they’ve become adept at concealing their motives and identity. The good news? Once you know their methods and motives, you’ll become adept yourself – at seeing through their camouflage.

They won’t know what’s hit them when you shut that door in their faces.

Oh, and one more thing: Once you've identified them as DiCs, don't let them back in.

Seek out constructive criticism

It may seem counterintuitive to actually go looking for criticism, but the more you seek out constructive criticism, the better off you’ll be.

Not only do constructive critics give you information you may need, they also provide barometer against which to measure the DiCs.

Constructive critics:

1)      Tell you the truth, whether it’s affirming or critical. They’re not “yes men” or DiCs; they’re authentic.

2)      Don’t have any personal stake in whether you take their advice or not. They’d be no less fulfilled in their own lives either way. They aren’t trying to stroke their own egos. They’re only engaging with you because they care about you.

3)      Are civil and respectful. Because they’ve got no dog in the hunt, they won’t bully or pressure you. They recognize and affirm your right to make your own decisions, even if they don’t agree with them.  

Constructive critics are essential because they are, first and foremost, not critics but allies. They’re your friends before anything else. They want to affirm and help empower you, not prove that they’re somehow superior.

The more allies you have, the more perspective you’ll gain and the better you’ll become at recognizing the DiCs.

There’s another advantage, too: Because they’re your allies, you’ll have more support when those DiCs do, inevitably, rear their ugly heads. You won’t be singing solo anymore: You’ll have a chorus of voices telling them to go right back where they came from.

 

 

 

7 Tips for Becoming a Successful Author

Stephen H. Provost

What does it take to be a successful author? First, you might want to ask yourself what it means to be a successful author. Since writing's about communication, Job One is to communicate with your reader. If you can do that, everything else is likely to follow: good reviews, a publisher and yes, maybe a few extra dollars. But ignore those things when you're writing or you'll never get there. To get you started, here are seven tips on how to go about it. 

1. Know your craft.

You can't write a book if you don't know how to write a sentence. Don't tell yourself, "The editor will fix that." Two simple facts: No editor will know or care as much about your work as you do. If you use your editor as a crutch, it means you're limping along, and you need to be in the best shape of your life to do this. If your editor is anything but a last line of defense, you're using him/her wrong. You are the expert on your story, so act like it. Care enough to understand language and how to use it. This doesn't mean following your eighth-grade English teacher's rules religiously. Dialogue, for example, should be true to your characters - the rules of grammar be damned. But here's Tip A1: You need to know the rules so you can know when to break them. 

2. Think like a journalist.

Yes, some journalists get lazy and rely on a "paint by numbers" approach to writing. Too often, they fall into the habit of relying on the same clichés passed along to them by police chiefs and public information officers. But they have one advantage most other writers don't: a hard deadline. They can't take the day off because they have "writer's block" or feel like sleeping in. They can't tell their editors they "don't feel like writing today." I asked bestselling author John Scalzi how his background in journalism helped him in his career as an author. This was his answer: The deadlines he faced gave him the discipline to write consistently.

3. Inhabit your world.

Remember when Chevy Chase blindfolded himself in "Caddyshack" and hit the golf ball onto the green? Maybe you don't. (After all, the movie came out in 1980.) His character's advice was to "be the ball." This doesn't mean you should blindfold yourself while you're writing. That probably won't work too well. But it is a good idea to block out distractions and put yourself in the middle of the action. Imagine you're the protagonist or, if you're writing nonfiction, one of the people affected by the events you're describing. The more you're a part of the story, the more invested you are; the better you can describe what's happening and, even more important, the what the characters are feeling. If you like living in your world enough to stay there for eight hours straight writing about it, chances are your readers will, too.

4. Write conversationally.

This is not the same as "writing the way you speak." If you were to do that, the result might not even be coherent. You're a storyteller, so tell a story. Spin a yarn. Don't write a thesis or a form letter. You're not trying to impress people with your vocabulary or talk down to them like a second-grade teacher. You're trying to grab and keep their attention. If you start writing like a bureaucrat or a textbook writer, no one's going to want to read your stuff. Even other bureaucrats fall asleep reading small print, and students have to read textbooks, but they don't want to, do they? Reading should be fun, so have fun with your writing. Your attitude will come through.

5. Don't write a memoir.

Seriously. Is your name Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan, Kennedy or Reagan? If not, most people probably aren't going to want to read about your life. Even if you're the best writer since Stephen King, few people outside your immediate family will want to read about the time your Aunt Mabel fell asleep in her mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner when you were 7. Nothing against you or your Aunt Mabel, but subject matter matters. Readers want something they can relate to (yes, that's a dangling modifier, but see Tip 1A). Too many writers use the tired admonition to "write what you know" as an excuse to write about their own lives. The trick is to infuse your writing with what you've learned from your experiences, not relate those experiences verbatim and call them a story.

6. Write like an explorer.

What's around the next bend, over the next hill? Write like you can't wait to find out, and you'll give your readers that same passion for your story. You've heard the advice to "write like a reader," which is good as far as it goes. But go further. If you're reading a good story, you'll want to be an explorer, too. The writing will pull you along, and you'll be eager to turn the page to find out what happens next. Write with that same desire, with a passion to learn about your characters and the world you're describing; your readers will pick up on that and go along for the roller-coaster ride.

7. Write with abandon.

Be fearless. Don't worry about what happens if your manuscript doesn't sell. There aren't agents or publishers, queries or rejection letters in the world you're creating for your readers. You can be whoever you want to be, and that's the beauty of it. Your last book didn't catch on? So start the next one (you should have started it already). Stop thinking about your boss' demands, your favorite video game, the dirty dishes, your Facebook friends or the big game on TV. The minute you pause to let the "real world" intrude upon your creative process, you'll lose the flow and find yourself out of the zone. That zone is your gateway to success.